An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Lone Star (1996)
- Credit: Archant
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
Lone Star; dir: John Sayles; Starring: Kris Kristofferson, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña, Matthew McConaughey, Clifton James, Stephen Mendillo, Stephen J Lang. Cert: 15 (1996)
During the 1990s John Sayles was the darling of the American independent movie world. He created stories about working people living in the rural heartlands of America and Lone Star was his masterpiece.
Part modern-day western, part Alfred Hitchcock-thriller, part time-travelling murder mystery and part character-study, Lone Star had a broad canvas and was painted in many styles but the overall picture was more than the sum of its parts.
At first glance, Lone Star comes across as a wonderful crowd-pleaser but the more you think about the movie, the more it offers. The murder mystery element is the hook that drags you in, the intriguing characters keep you interested, keep you wanting to discover more, the Hitchcockian atmosphere offers a rich world to lose yourself in while the time-jumping element gives the film an epic eloquence that will survive any number of re-screenings.
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As the film opens you think that this is going to be a straight forward police drama or detective drama as a skeleton is unearthed in the desert just outside a rural Texan town close to the Mexican border.
It quickly becomes clear that the bones belong to a much-hated sheriff from the 1950s, played by Kris Kristofferson, but, as the investigation gets underway, the current sheriff (Chris Cooper) suspects that the murder may have been committed by his own father (a young Matthew McConaughey) who was Kristofferson’s deputy at the time.
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However, this isn’t a straight-forward police procedural who-dunnit, this is the story of a community and the story of how a town has evolved over time and to solve the murder we need to understand the relationships between the townsfolk.
It turns out that relationships can be romantic as well as antagonistic. This small Texas town becomes, in John Sayles hands, a microcosm of the entire United States. This represents the heart of every town, every community whether it is Smallville USA in the middle of Wyoming or The Village in the midst of bustling New York.
These communities are forged by individuals, by friendships and rivalries between people. As Chris Cooper starts investigating the past, the relationships of the present come into sharper focus – particularly the relationship between Chris Cooper’s character Sam Deeds and Pilar, a Mexican mother, played with great sensitivity by Elizabeth Peña.
As teenagers Sam and Pilar were very much in love but their romance was thwarted by the community of the time who frowned upon white-hispanic relationships. But, it is not only the Mexican connections which receive Sayles attention.
In the town Big Otis, a friendly black man, ran the town’s bar, a big cross-cultural meeting place that was merely tolerated by Kristofferson ‘s sadistic Sheriff. Today Big Otis’ son is the Colonel in charge of the nearby airbase. Times have changed, things have improved but racial tensions with the Mexicans remain and a fierce debate about school books, illustrates that the events of the past can be presented in a number of different ways.
Sayles neatly jumps from the 1950s to the 1990s with a simple pan of the camera. The desert landscape and the town architecture have changed little in 40 years and a gentle swoop of the camera takes us from the harsh world of Sheriff Charlie Wade to the seemingly more egalitarian world of 1990s America.
The camerawork, like the performances of the actors, is stylish and thoughtful but never showy for the sake it – although it is impressive. It is a beautiful looking film and has a story which hooks you in from the moment that we discover those bones and that police badge lying in the dirt.
Chris Cooper is brilliant as the honourable Sam Deeds, while Matthew McConaughey, in one of his first leading roles, makes Buddy Deeds, a believably conflicted individual while Kris Kristofferson as the evil Charlie Wade brings a sense of irrational menace to the film and makes you wonder whether murder can ever be justified.
There are plenty of revelations to keep you on the edge of your seats which makes Lone Star one of the richest and most rewarding films you are likely to see for a very long time.